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FEATURE 'It's do-or-die for Australian rugby as Lions loom'

'It's do-or-die for Australian rugby as Lions loom'
6 months ago

“I don’t take responsibility for 20 years of decline of Australian rugby. And that’s what’s trying to be pinned on me – 20 years of decline.”

Eddie Jones may have been wrong to blame the specifics of the Wallabies’ disastrous World Cup on systemic decay, but there is no doubt it remains a huge shadow hanging over the future of Australian rugby. Now the man who appointed Jones, chairman Hamish McLennan, has gone too.

It is a sign of very turbulent times indeed. Major sponsors of the Wallabies such as Cadbury now appear ready to jump ship, and private equity has already walked. As one of the honourable folks remaining in Australian rugby, Brumbies coach ‘Lord’ Laurie Fisher tweeted, “Thus endeth an horrific year for Oz rugby. Time to unite and move forward. Let’s all get on board.”

A momentous few years lie ahead: a British and Irish Lions tour in 2025, the men’s World Cup in 2027, and the women’s version two years later. How Australian rugby responds to those events on the field, and how it deploys the financial windfall which derives from them off it, will be crucial to the health of a patient which has spent the longest period of any top-tier nation in rugby’s equivalent of intensive care.

The convalescence needs to be accurately mapped and the rehab needs to start now, with the Lions only 18 months away. It is likely to be one of the strongest Lions squads in history and an unimpeded two-week period of preparation has already been guaranteed by the English Premiership and the URC before the tour opener against the Western Force on 28 June. That has never happened before, so the Lions will be primed and ready to roar.

Hamish McLennan left his post as Rugby Australia chairman this week (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

The most fundamental building block for Australia is an improvement in the effectiveness of its five-franchise system. Teams other than the Brumbies need to start beating their New Zealand opponents regularly in Super Rugby Pacific 2024, and all five franchises need to be prepared for the onslaught of a well-honed international team drawn from the cream of the four ‘home nations’ one year later.

When I toured Australia with the 2001 Lions party as advisor to head coach Graham Henry, one of the most common conversations among the coaching panel was the difficulty of the itinerary. Not difficulty ‘New Zealand-style’ where the toughness of the opposition and the quality of the midweek games hammer you into shape for the Test series – but hard for precisely the opposite reason.

Twenty-two years ago, Henry’s Lions only had one serious trial before the first Test in Brisbane, and that was an Eddie Jones-engineered ambush in Gosford by Australia ‘A’. Take that game out of the equation, and the Lions won the other five by an average score of 66- 10. Henry would often confide he had no idea what his best combinations were, because they had never been subjected to any pressure at all.

Despite the presence of 30,000 red-clad supporters on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the other side of the world, the Lions never made the headlines in the local or national newspapers. The pages were saturated with coverage of the State of Origin series in league. When I informed my local taxi driver in Townsville I was on a big rugby tour, he pondered for a moment before replying, “Who’s yer money on then? Andrew Johns or ‘Alfie’ Langer?”

I was touring a magnificent country in which the unique sporting centrepiece seemed nigh invisible, a marginal footnote to a story being told elsewhere. The relationship between union and league resembled the link between major population centres along the coast and the vast, unmapped interior of the country. Perth was a strikingly modern metropolis, but three or four miles outside it, you were out in the never-ending wilderness, the rugby ‘outback’. The Lions coaches and players all felt the same way.

By the end of the tour, Henry found himself recommending hugely scaled-down visits in the future, just six consecutive Saturdays including a three-Test series. That would be enough.

The touring itinerary for 2025 is a virtual carbon copy of 2001. There are nine games instead of 10, and five games rather than six (including the obligatory ‘invitational’ fixture) before the Test series begins. Even the sequence of opponents is the same – first Western Australia (the Force), then Queensland, New South Wales and the Brumbies. But in the intervening 22 years, the northern hemisphere has waxed in strength while Australia has waned.

A speedy gallop through the five provinces, followed by a leisurely canter through the Test series will do the credibility of Australian rugby no good at all. Before McLennan was forced out, there were signs concrete remedial steps were being taken. The Waratahs’ professional rugby operations (both playing/coaching and marketing aspects) were recently integrated with Rugby Australia’s own high-performance and commercial objectives. All the other franchises were likely to follow suit and fall into line. Who will now force through those much-needed changes? Who will be the king who forces the states to act as one?

As RA’s new CEO Phil Waugh announced: “We have a plan we are working on to unite the game – it will take the whole game to rebuild a system which delivers success on and off the field.”

Raids into the NRL for talent, such as the 2023 incursion for Joseph-Aukuso Sua’alii, are high-profile marketing exercises but very rarely are they cost-effective. The bear has been poked, and league is already talking retaliation: the word is out on promising young union products including Mark Nawaqanitawase and Max Jorgensen, with the former reportedly targeted by the Sydney Roosters.

As NRL chief Andrew Abdo recently suggested :“Growth is on our agenda, so while our primary focus is developing rugby league talent through our own pathways, we’re also open to attracting [players] and, potentially in some cases, [those] returning to league from other codes.

“Would salary-cap relief be potentially used? Yes.

“That’s an absolute possibility that the commission will consider in due course.”

Australian Rugby is not so much burning on a short fuse as fighting for its very existence, and it is becoming a race against time to avoid total humiliation in 2025.

RA needs to act now to secure the future of the Wallabies, and the players it foresees as the key to success two years hence. Forwards such as Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Nick Frost and Will Skelton should form the backbone of the tight five against the Lions, while outside backs such as Nawaqanitawase, Jordie Petaia and Jorgensen may well be part of the best backfield Australia can put on the field. That must mean free access to European-based players such as Skelton, and domestic fencing erected around young talents such as Nawaqanitawase.

Skelton
Hulking Wallaby captain Will Skelton has four European Champions Cup wins on his CV (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Skelton will still be only 33 years of age when the Lions arrive, and he does not have many international miles on the clock. The big man from La Rochelle has so many points of difference in the second row that it is quite easy to forgive him the lack of orthodox lineout jumping acumen: he is one of the top three maul defenders in world rugby, and with both ‘Skelts’ and the Tongan Thor on the right side of the front row, the scrum shifts up a couple of gears.

The Wallabies won two penalties off the French scrum in the preparatory game immediately before the World Cup, and they took the much-vaunted Georgian pack to the cleaners at the pool stage.

 

The Georgian loose-head and hooker cannot plant their feet and set a stable platform, such is the pressure manifesting from 275 kilos of scrum bestiality on the Aussie tight-head side.

Skelton has also given the Wallaby defence a focal point as a ‘jackaler’ at defensive breakdowns. Australia have been light on true competitors at the tackle area ever since David Pocock’s retirement, but Skelton has fixed that problem, winning two turnovers versus the French and another pair against Georgia.

 

 

Once he is established directly above the ball-carrier, big Will is quite simply ‘too big to fail’.

Along with Bell, Skelton is one of two key ball-carriers in the Wallaby tight five. When Australia scored a try in the 61st minute against France, they did it short-handed with 14 men, and it was four carries from Bell and Skelton which propelled the them up the short side, all the way from their own 40m line to the edge of the France 22. That set up a chip and a first-touch by Nawaqanitawase.

 

The winger’s ability to get into the air early, and ‘hang’ in the heavens until the ball returns to earth is prodigious, even by AFL standards.

 

He can utilize his height to offload on the edge.

 

Henry Arundell-like, he is developing the kicking skills to occupy a more central role as full-back.

 

Australia needs access to these players, and to ensure they receive the blue-chip coaching they need to improve and fulfil their potential – if not at home, then elsewhere through partnerships arranged and managed with selected big clubs outside Australia.

Above all, Australia needs the five-team format to work in Super Rugby Pacific, which means at least three of its franchises must have winning seasons before the Lions descend. The winning culture needs to be established within the country at provincial level, not outside it by a roaming giant playing in the Bay of Biscay.

Home-grown talents will only hang on if they feel their careers are progressing. Otherwise, they may as well seek their fortunes in the NRL, or at a club in the Top 14 or URC. With Jones and McLennan gone, it really is that simple, and it really is ‘do-or-die’ for Australian rugby now.

Comments

70 Comments
K
Kashmir Pete 202 days ago

Nick

Hindsight, but if only the 5th Australian Super Rugby team had been to split the Waratahs between Waratahs (North of Sydney Harbour) and Convicts (South of Sydney Harbour); and rebase the Brumbies in Melbourne, with catchment all ACT and Western NSW all the way up to the QLD border, where Australian rugby might sit today.

I’d guess traditionally Sydney North and Sydney South, might each on own, have not dissimilar rugby player numbers (or more) to QLD. Instead, teams were chosen to spruik TV audiences, nothing else.

Cheers
KP

d
d 204 days ago

Thanks Nick. Always good to hear overseas people understand how little most Aussies care about rugby..I'm in the minority here. And in 2001 when you were here there were far more wallabies fans than now because it was probably the greatest side ever and we won everything! Most Aussies here wouldn't be affected if we continue to slide down.

Great points. Despite our dysfunctions we have produced some top talent recently. Reading some comments…I do hope Phil Waugh as CEO and Herbert as chairman shows some unity for the NSW Qld conspiracy. Centralisation seems smart…but handing power over to rugby Australia also seems risky….look at their decision making in recent times!!

F
Francisco 205 days ago

Hello Nick...! In addition to Los Pumas, Australia constantly attracts my attention. It was a shame to see his game as depreciated as we saw it at RWC2023. But the truth is that the coach's strategy and the team's game plan were designed by Eddie Jones. How should you have posed that strategy for it to be successful...? Five franchises based on Australian soil and competing with the Kiwis sides for a season, is something that observing the differences, is impossible to obtain in my country. I imagine that is the fundamental material with which they can work from now on. Otherwise, I love the play of Nawaqanitawase, Edmed (Australia A) and the solidity of Tupou and Slipper. I would even love to see Q. Cooper at the helm of the Wallabies for one more season. Greetings for all...!

J
Jon 207 days ago

Yeah hopefully this is a rally cry for people to get back involved a set a path for Rugby Australia that they are proud of. Hopefully that can include the likes of Cheika and Mckenzie, that appear to have given up, in the club scene.

They should ask NZR to grant Razor his wish, even to encourage any contracted players who want to take a sabbatical from Super Rugby for a couple of years, to do so. It will be for the benefit of their own competitions competitiveness and popularity. That would even up the ledge enough.

Australian Rugby is really spilling money hand over fist. First Folau and losing sponsors because they didn’t stand up for the right thing - you’ve just got to find the positives in those situations and all they were worried about was killing the negative - then the whole broadcast deal - no one wants to watch your rugby if it’s going to be what you gave us this year - where they should have got the game and the moment right before jumping off the bridge on that one, then, or now, they could be doing it all with nothing. I still bemoan that the world was left at a state of odds after the Israel thing. That sort of thing should be a learning experience, all got out of it was hell is bad! bad place to be, band to say. like really? They were probably having this same argument coding the bible.

It really would be interesting if this was not a Lions year for Australia. What would they do if this wasn’t there to build to and they had no major sponsor, broadcast deal. It would be back to the beginning, and that would be a very interesting place to be for NZ and Aus rugby.

j
john 207 days ago

The only reason the Tahs handed over control to Rugby Australia was because they are essentially bankrupt. Nothing altruistic about it.

With Herbert at the helm, there is a chance the other states might now get a fair go.

David Nucifora as head of high performance and Ewen McKenzie as coach. What a dream team !

M
Mzilikazi 207 days ago

Jones gone, then McLennan, and 75 mm of rain in the past 24 hrs here in our Qld. garden. Things are looking up for sure, Nick. Great article !

It is reported that Scott Robertson will be talking, to the powers that decide such things, about eligibility of NZ players overseas ,as he takes over as coach of the AB’s. The article I read felt that the key player he would want back is Richie Mo’unga. I would hope whoever takes over as the WB coach negotiates the right to pick any player from overseas felt to be essential. Scrap totally the "Giteau Law”…forever.

Will Skelton would be a key player for the WB setup. Your comments on his value cover all the “points of difference he brings. Even his lineout work is unknown to those who have not watched him play in Europe. La Rochelle used him at the end of the Heineken win in Dublin last season to great effect several times. No 2 jump, his talented hands scooping in the ball, a boulder for the maul to be built on as he hit the ground. I noticed, looking only at brief highlights of the LAR win on the weekend, the same use being made of him.

c
cs 207 days ago

Love those clips Nick! It’d be heartbreaking to lose Marky to Ruba League and a criminal waste of talent.

Surprised not to see Valentini in your forward list?

More generally, I reckon the coach and chair exits have been a great thing at the right point in the cycle, giving the game a chance for the first sensible reset in ready memory. Dan Herbert looks a magic selection to chair the show. Now for a sensible coach!

Looking forward to a red-hot Lions tour. Great to have a big juicy target to force everyone to seriously aim up from the get go.

Hope springs!

J
JD Kiwi 207 days ago

Hi Nick, I hadn't realised that the Premiership has finally seen sense and started a week earlier for the Lions. Great news.

Such a shame that Fiji and maybe Samoa aren't getting a warm up test during the July window as the first test isn't until the 19th and some of the states are so poor. Could have been a great event.

M
Mitch 207 days ago

Well Nick, Hamish and Eddie and their massive egos leaving is the best thing that has happened since the end of the World Cup. Hamish starting a war of words with the NRL is something the game will regret and Eddie is still suggesting NRL players for rugby to sign. Dan Herbert is the interim chairman. We have a CEO from NSW and an interim chairman from QLD. The plan seems to be to get a High Performance manager first before looking at a new head coach which I see as a good idea at this point.

Like just about everywhere in Queensland, Townsville is rugby league mad. I’d almost say the love of sport in that part of QLD starts and stops with rugby league. The fist test of the 2001 Lions series was the night before that year’s State of Origin series decider, famous for QLD coach Wayne Bennett bringing Allan Langer back from England in what was and still is the biggest gamble of Bennett’s illustrious career. The gamble paid off as Langer played a starring role in the mighty Queenslanders beating NSW 40-14. What happened the night before that Origin isn’t as memorable I’m sorry, haha.

M
MitchO 207 days ago

Hi Nick first I remember that lions tour of Oz and disgracefully the Force and other super teams fielded B teams!!!!! I thought at the time that if I was a first team player I’d be insisting on the once ina lifetime opportunity to play the lions. The Force a team would get pummeled by the lions but as a rugby player don’t you want that shot against the best.
In regard to rugby in Perth WA … cricket is very popular here and Sunday night we won the ODI (50 overgame) against favourites India. Back page of the only daily paper article was that afl team west coast eagles selected the number one draft pick.

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